This is the story of a professor unlike any other. Dr. Girish Kulkarni is a Ph.D. scholar and professor in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. He is also the founder of Snehalaya, an NGO that helps sex workers in the red light areas. According to Girish, he is a teacher by profession but became a doctor, tailor, barber, and saviour only because of the trust people placed in him and his organization, Snehalaya. Today, Snehalaya has given 100,000+ marginalized people a dignified life in society.
Walking past the red light area
Girish Kulkarni, while in Standard VIII, had enrolled in after-school Maths and English tuitions. After his Maths tuition, he had to hurry for the English tuition – a kilometre away. To reach in time and get a front seat in the English class, Girish often took a shortcut that led him through Chitra Galli, the forbidden red-light area of Ahmednagar. During one of his shortcut walks, he witnessed a naked 13 to 14 year old being beaten and tortured with chilies rubbed on her genitals because she had contracted syphilis and could not work. The young Girish felt powerless to help and even fled the scene, but it haunted him through the years.
Entering a home in Chitra Galli
In college, Girish had many friends, and among them was one who lived in Chitra Galli, the red-light area. One day when this friend finally found the courage to invite Girish over to his home, Girish did not believe what he saw. His friends’ 15-year-old sister, 40-year-old mother, and even 70-year-old grandmother worked in the sex trade. Once again, Girish felt helpless and did not know how to help his friend get out from there. Soon, he began to approach these sex workers daily, only to ask how he could help them. All they said was, “Take our children”. So, every day after college, Girish would turn up to pick up two children and take them to a park, buy them snacks, tell them stories or teach them how to ride bicycles. Word soon began to spread, and within four months, Girish, at the age of 19 years, was entertaining and teaching 80 children of sex workers.
The young lad had become a Messiah for the sex workers. One day as a sex worker approached the police to report harassment, instead of helping her, they raped and robbed her. The other sex workers, fuelled by Girish’s support, rallied and marched against the guilty parties. For the first time, the guilty cops got transferred out/punished for their crimes committed.
By now, Girish knew he wanted to help women in the red-light area who were struggling to live a life with dignity, unable to leave their profession. So, in 1989, he founded an NGO called Snehalaya.
The Snehalaya Model
The Snehalaya Model initially started as an education program for a handful of children of sex workers and some palliative care for sex workers affected by AIDS. Currently, the Foundation has 250+volunteers and serves over 19,000 beneficiaries each year with 22 projects across four key areas. They are: –
- Balbhavan (Slum School)
- English Medium School
- IT Center
- Agricultural Training Centre
- Sex Worker Outreach
- Caring Friends Hospital
- Bedside Assistance Training
- Rehab Centre (Children’s Shelter Home)
- Snehankur (Adoption)
- Snehadhar (Women’s Shelter)
- Himmatgram (Biofarm)
- Childline Ahmednagar
- Sneha Saksham
- Radio Nagar 90.4 FM
- Yuva Nirman (Youth Volunteering)
- Mission Water
Snehalaya has also conducted various campaigns, like the Malala Fund (for equality in education) and Her Voice (for standing up against gender equality) to help sex workers and several poverty-ridden LGBT community persons. Most of the projects are spearheaded by those raised in brothels. The Foundation even has three sex workers as Trustees.
The Social Change
Despite having a supportive family, Girish faced several challenges and even discrimination from neighbors and friends who would make fun of his efforts.
But Girish never gave up. With the initial donations from the sex workers, who would give a part of whatever little they earned for the development of the NGO, Snehalaya has come a long way. Today, after 30 years and partnering with organizations like Toybank, Wishing Well, Arpan Foundation, and Bajaj Finserv, the Foundation receives sufficient donations to support its projects. While 65% of the donations come from individuals, the rest come from corporate funds and CSR initiatives.
It is time for a social change. Inspired by the likes of Dr. Girish Kulkarni, you too can take up a cause and make it your life’s purpose. But until then, start with baby steps by donating to Snehalaya and be the change!